Written by Nell Alk. Photographs 1, 2, 3, and 5 by Cody Cha.
Sleep-away camp: one of the great American rites of passage. The days-, weeks-, or months-long retreat to the wilderness that your adolescent self either excitedly anticipated or anxiously awaited (but almost always turned out to be really awesome). The adventure of living in a new setting and meeting new kids from other places. The allure of becoming friends with seemingly impossibly cool people in their high teens or early twenties (counselors) who would never have hung out with you otherwise.
Generally speaking, summer camp is a blast for kids and teenagers. But what about the precocious ones who want to do something beyond campfires and kickball? The ones who care about animals, the environment, or human rights? Who see meat-laden menus or social clique-ing and think, “No thanks!”?
Nora Kramer, a veteran volunteer experienced in grassroots activism, came to their rescue in 2009 when, in grand activist tradition, she organized the solution herself: Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp, which started as a single location in Oregon and has expanded to locations in California and New Jersey. In many ways it’s like a typical summer camp, with games and community-building and outdoorsy stuff. What’s different is that the kids spend much of their time learning to become better advocates for the causes that matter most to them. And the mess hall isn’t so much of an ethical mess, since it’s 100% vegan.
Of course, one doesn’t just start a venture like YEA Camp without examining the viability of the concept. Ultimately, it was Kramer’s observations about adolescents’ heightened sensitivity that convinced her to move forward. “Teenagers are a lot of times given a bad rap, conceived as being apathetic or self-centered,” she says. “But I’ve found that teenagers are really compassionate and, when they learn about a problem, they want to do something about it—more so than adults.”
The camp provides a safe haven where, as Kramer phrases it, “It’s cool to care.” She explains, “People are generally influenced by peer pressure and wanting to conform and fit in. Often, people who care about things are dissuaded from acting because there’s a culture of apathy, of being ‘too cool,’ to actually do something.” YEA channels that impulse in a positive way, letting kids be their true and best selves within a social culture that values and rewards altruism.
Fortunately, that doesn’t mean sacrificing certain comforts and indulgences. While, as she assures, “The point of the camp is to train campers to grow as activists,” nevertheless, for example, “Our food is always really, really great. That’s a top priority for me. Rave reviews all around.” Like at any camp, some of the less vegan-acquainted kids are initially apprehensive, but they soon warm up. Other campers, however, seek out this sort of meal plan: “We have kids who Googled ‘vegetarian or vegan summer camp.’ That’s what they’re looking for.”
Still, “It’s impossible to leave this camp being single-issue,” Kramer says. Frequently, campers enter with one or two points of passion and depart with a few more. Following exercises like the Planetary Problem Puzzle—where camp-goers draw parallels between seemingly disparate topics, such as homelessness and war, animal rights and LGBT rights—exiting entails an expansion in perspective and a confidence that they, too, can change the world.
Indeed, YEA Camp alumni have taken home what they’ve learned and made noteworthy strides, like instituting recycling programs at school, facilitating an atmosphere of intolerance towards bullying in the classroom, and even opening a vegan cake catering company. Kramer expands, “A number of kids get more vegetarian or vegan options in their cafeterias. That’s a really tough campaign in public schools. There’s so much bureaucracy,” which makes the training, guidance, and self-confidence offered by YEA all the more valuable to the kids who take responsibility for the problems of the world.
All the more reason to let these kids be kids some of the time, too. YEA campers can look forward to hikes, dance parties, pool time, games, and traditional camp sing-alongs. There might even be s’mores, though rest assured the chocolate for melting and marshmallows for roasting will be dairy- and gelatin-free.
Participants in YEA Camp range in age from 12-17 and each session can accommodate approximately 25 kids, half female and half male. Four sets of dates take place in three locations this summer: Portland, Oregon (July 7-13 and July 14-20), Northern California (July 21-28), and New Jersey (August 15-20), which is new this year—the first East Coast offering. Tuition, which also includes lodging and meals, is $950. Lower-income families are encouraged to apply, as scholarships are available. Try not to feel limited due to your location alone; kids have been known to fly across country and even over the ocean to partake. Last-minute registration may still be possible; check yeacamp.org for availability.